Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. An edited transcript of this week’s chat is below. (Read Prudie’s Slate columns here.)
Emily Yoffe: Hello everyone. Best wishes for Passover and Easter.
Q. In-Laws: My boyfriend recently proposed, and I happily said yes. We’ve only been engaged for a few weeks, and suddenly things are on the rocks. His parents are constantly criticizing me for my lack of religion, my clothes, etc. I’ve learned to deal with that. But recently they came to meet my parents and told them that they had done a poor job raising me. My parents are wonderful people and I’m completely horrified that my prospective in-laws treated them so badly. My fiance says that I should try harder with his parents—I think he needs to tell them that they need to act with respect toward me and my family. We’re at a stalemate, and I’m seriously thinking of breaking off the engagement. Am I wrong to expect that if my in-laws can’t be respectful toward my family, then my fiance needs to draw some boundaries between me and his parents?
A: It’s hard to believe that his parents’ behavior—and your fiance’s defense of them—is entirely new. You don’t say they were lovely people before you got engaged who are only now realize you are contemptible. Were you ignoring all this during your courtship? Or since you’ve gotten engaged, have they gone to war with you? In any case, their insults are outrageous, and their attack on your parents borders on the sociopathic. As for “trying harder,” I’m hoping your fiance doesn’t mean you should let his parents dictate how you look and what you think, or that you should agree with them that your parents are an abomination.
It’s one thing to have awful in-laws. But to get through it, your spouse has to recognize their awfulness and try to deflect the attacks. If what you’re saying is accurate, you’ve just contracted to spend your life being emotionally battered by a bunch of lunatics. Tell your fiance what you’ve told me. Explain that you know he can’t control his parents, but he can control how he responds to them. And if he doesn’t stand up for you, then let’s hope he can get his money back on the ring.
Dear Prudence: Pushy Lawn Mower
Q. Nosy Visitor: A co-worker and I study together once a week. At her request, we picked my apartment as our meeting place. Here is my problem. My co-worker has gotten into the habit of taking inventory of every item in the apartment from the minute she arrives. My husband and I are newly married, and we’re in the process of slowly replacing our graduate student possessions with nicer stuff. You can imagine what fertile grounds our apartment makes for her inquisitiveness. Every time she zeros in on a new knick-knack, and no item is too small to escape her notice, she insists on knowing where we got it and how much we paid for it. Noncommittal responses are met with more persistent questions. It’s gotten to the point where my husband and I are expected to recount the history of every new spoon or spatula in painful detail. Frankly, I find it a bit creepy. These questions are also extremely distracting when sprung in the middle of our study. Is there a graceful way to avoid or address this awkwardness? My co-worker is from a different culture, so I wonder if my husband and I are being unfair in our reactions.
A: This is why Starbuck’s was invented. Either you get more direct in your answers: “Let’s not talk about my apartment decoration. I’m uncomfortable discussing what I pay for my purchases. Thanks for understanding.” Or you move the venue. If you go to Starbucks, or some other neutral territory, you’ll probably get more work done as she won’t spend a lot of time musing about how much the company paid for the new container for the cinnamon.
Q. Wedding Etiquette: I have been good friends with “Jeff” for almost 20 years. Jeff married a wonderful woman, “Cassie,” a number of years ago, and I have become good friends with her as well. Unfortunately, Jeff and Cassie recently began the process of getting divorced. I’m very sad for them both. I can understand their issues from both of their perspectives and am not “taking sides.” I am getting married this summer and am working on the guest list. I would really like them both to attend, but I don’t want to make either of them uncomfortable. Is it acceptable to invite them both, even though it may upset Jeff?
A: Good for you for wanting to maintain the friendship with each of them. Go ahead and send the invitations. You can then mention in conversation with each that you wanted to let them know you’ve invited their exes. If Jeff can’t be in the same room as Cassie, then he can politely decline.
Q. Changing Your Mind About Marriage/Misinterpretation Question: Do you have any advice for a woman whose boyfriend has suddenly decided that he no longer wants to get married? We moved in together over a year ago after discussing marriage a lot, including ring sizes, where we’d get married, etc. He told me the other night that he had never intended to get married again (he is five years out of a divorce) and that I “misinterpreted the conversations” about marriage in the first place. The marriage part isn’t so important as him changing his mind after I moved in with him. I don’t think I misheard him (since he also wrote notes to me expressing his desire to tie the knot, and I have those still). Any ideas? I know I need to talk to him, but I don’t even know how to begin this conversation.
A: I know moving in together has been the prelude to marriage for many happy couples. But the many cases such as yours are why I often have qualms about it. Is moving in a trial to really evaluate whether you can live with each other’s toothpaste squeezing habits before deciding to marry? Is it a way of acknowledging you’re not ready to commit, but it’s crazy to keep spending so much money on two domiciles? Or in your boyfriend’s case, is it a way to temporize about a difficult decision? If a couple knows they want to get married, they probably should just do that, instead of moving in together with the kind of hope that marriage will be forthcoming. If you can find your way to be OK about not getting married, then just be happy living together. If you feel misled—I would—then start looking for your own place while you figure out how to equitably divide up your assets.
Q. Student Passing: I am an education student for high school, and I am currently student teaching a wonderful group of high school juniors and seniors. Unfortunately, one of my students came in and looked ill. I asked if he wanted to go to the nurse because he was pale as a ghost. He nodded, stood up, and just collapsed on the ground. He wasn’t breathing. My mentor administered CPR while I was on the phone with 911 and some students went to get the nurse and security. Within seven minutes, he was out the door with the paramedics. After a few days in a coma, he passed away from complications with his heart. I feel terrible. I know I did what my body and training told me to do, but I feel like I could have done more. Maybe if I hadn’t made him stand up, etc. How do I get over this guilt? The school counselor is not willing to see me because I am not a student, “just an intern.” Please help!
A: What a heartbreak. I hope you know you did nothing wrong. In fact, this story tells how attentive and concerned you are about your students that you noticed the boy did not look well. Since you are a student yourself, please go to your college’s counseling service and find a therapist to talk this through with you. It sounds as if it would also help if you were able to get information on this boy’s medical condition, and receive reassurance that you—that everyone—did everything possible, but sometimes tragedies happen that can’t be prevented. Please seek out, insist on, getting the help you need. You are understandably traumatized, but you will get over this and come to understand your guilt is misplaced.
Q. Neighbor Problem: I am a man in his 20s. I have a great life and girlfriend, and I can’t think of the last time a problem truly stumped me like this one has. I live in a condominium complex and have a neighbor, “Samantha,” who I am not close with but share hellos with when I see her in the elevator, hallway, etc. We both know each other’s names and chat on occasion, but that is about it. Well, a few months ago I was awakened by “Samantha” to be, what sounded like, in the throes of passion in her bedroom (which is across the wall from mine). It was loud enough to wake me from a dead sleep and continued for several agonizing minutes. Now if this had been a onetime thing, I would not be writing to you, but for several months this has been happening multiple times a week anytime between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. Each time I am jolted from sleep (for it is quite a vocal performance, to say the least). Moving is out of the question, for I own my condo, and I am her only neighbor as well. Is there a way to solve this without making it any more awkward than it already is?
A: Passionate neighbors are a perennial problem. Other readers have said that anonymous notes pushed under the door have worked wonders. Something like: “We’re happy that you’re having so much fun in bed, but please respect that your early morning passion is ruining the time in bed for those of us who are just sleeping. So when you go at it, please keep it down.”
Q. Adult Children: My sons are all grown and none live at home anymore and haven’t for over a year. My husband and I are finally enjoying the “empty nest” and value our time alone. However, my 20-year-old son drops in CONSTANTLY. This wouldn’t be quite so terrible if it was only a quick visit, but he’ll stay eight or nine hours or more. It’s driving me CRAZY. He doesn’t call first. He just shows up. It’s even worse when it happens on weeknights, because I get home at 6 p.m. and value having a couple of hours to decompress. But he shows up and stays until I go to bed! I raised him to call first and to have manners. At 20 years old, he should know better. I don’t want him to stop visiting, but I DO want him to stop assuming that he’s welcome here any time and that I must not have anything to do now that he doesn’t live here. It’s driving my husband crazy, too, but he’s MY son, so I’m the one who has to deal with it.
A: How about having a conversation with him? It’s not clear here whether he’s dropping by because he expects a free meal and laundry service, or because he’s out of work and depressed, or because he’s kind of a lost lamb, or because his current living situation is miserable, etc. You can address the problem best by being kind and welcoming and saying that you love seeing him, but are concerned that he wants to spend so much time hanging out with you, not with his friends, and want to talk about what’s up. Maybe he still thinks of your home as his home, and he doesn’t feel he needs to announce his arrival. In any case, instead of capital letter resentment, ratchet down the annoyance, and open up some communication.
Q. Re: Nosy Visitor: I’m from a culture where nosy behavior is pretty well accepted. As well, many of the first generation immigrants in America are simply fascinated by American culture and surroundings. My parents would often embarrass me at friends’ houses by inquiring how much they paid for their car, or for the purpose of a new appliance or knick knack. When we return to their home country, we are bombarded with questions about how much things cost in America, whether we have a maid, etc. You’d be doing your co-worker a favor by telling her to knock it off in a polite way.
A: It’s a good point to make clear to the co-worker that personal finances are private and you don’t want to discuss them.
Q. Lost Heirloom: When I was a young teenager about 15 years ago, my beloved aunt died. Being as we shared the same birthdate, I inherited a beautiful sapphire bracelet from her, valued at about $5,000. My mother retained the bracelet, and while visiting home in my sophomore year of college she handed it back to me, proudly proclaiming that I was now old enough to properly care for such an item. Flash forward seven years and I cannot locate the bracelet anywhere. I’ve moved four times in the last seven years, but I honestly don’t know if I ever even took it back to college with me, or instead stashed it in my dresser at my childhood home. I’ve searched that dresser at home (my mother has since turned my old room into a guest bedroom and cleaned out all my dressers), and I’ve also looked everywhere at my current home. My question is, do I tell my mother that I can’t locate the bracelet in the hopes that she found it while cleaning and has kept mum to teach me a lesson? Or do I not tell her in the hopes that if she doesn’t know I lost it, she won’t kill me if she doesn’t find out?
A: I’ve hidden several valuable things in places so clever I can’t remember where I’ve put them. So do give your belongings another once over and think, if you were moving again and knew where the bracelet was, where you would you hide it. If that fails to turn it up, then come clean with your mother and tell her you hope against hope that you may have given it to her for safekeeping and forgotten about it. It’s also possible that during your many moves, it was stolen. But if it’s gone, it’s gone, and no one’s going to feel worse about it than you.
Q. Mother-in-Law Nightmare: My mother-in-law is married to someone who is required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. This was common knowledge because a simple Google search has him listed. However, MIL is convinced that he was “framed” and he is a great guy. Well, we found out he was convicted of rape of a young girl. He spent years in federal prison, and since he kept losing jobs and acting funny, we did a search and found out he is also a drug dealer currently on probation. She lied to the family about this, too. My question is what do we do? She refuses to see anything wrong in him and accuses us of being “mean” and “judgmental” when we are fearing for her safety. We don’t want to be around this man, who, despite being a convicted felon, waves weapons around at the dinner table. We are heartbroken that my husband’s mother is mad at us for trying to protect her. She has had several restraining orders against him, and this was before he was caught selling drugs, and she still protects him and shuns us. Do we just give up?
A: Oh you mean, judgmental people who don’t want to be shot over Easter dinner or raped while you’re in the bedroom retrieving your coat. If it’s possible to extract Mom from this gem long enough to get her a mental evaluation, that might yield some insight into her marital choice. But if you can’t do that, then you explain to her that as long as “Ted” is there, you won’t be.
Q. Supporting a Parent Who Abandoned Their Kids?: Almost two decades ago my mom had an affair and abandoned me and my brother. Once dad managed to find her address and after having his calls and letters unanswered, he took us to her home. She gave me and my brother $1 each and told us she would live with us at a later time. Even as a kid I knew that was a lie. She didn’t claim us when dad passed away, instead we spent some time in a temporary home before being dumped on an abusive uncle. We spent our teenage years “earning” rationed food by working like slaves in his home. Then early last month mom contacted a distant relative on dad’s side, desperately looking for us. Apparently she has cancer and is destitute. My husband met with her and heard her sob story. He now wants to give her some money to help with medical bills and living costs. I am very angry that he even suggested this. I have no interest in supporting a runaway mother, and to be honest, her death would be like a stranger’s death. Am I obliged to help out my mom? My brother became very emotional when he heard this and said he’d cut ties with me if I gave her a cent.
A: It’s crazy mother day! How sad to hear how many there are. Presumably, your mother is mentally ill, or has some substance abuse problems, or both. But whatever the reason, she left you and your brother to a Dickensian childhood. I’m assuming your husband had a decent childhood. If so, that’s great for him, but that makes it hard to truly understand what it was like to have a horrible one. To him, your mother is a pathetic person, and his normal human sympathy has him wanting to help her.
I understand your point of view and that of your brother. I don’t think you owe her anything. I also understand your brother’s emotional reaction—but it is not fair of him to make such a threat to you. I’m wondering if it’s possible for you to tell your husband you want nothing to do with her, but you won’t stop him from doing what he feels is right, as long as you don’t have to hear about it or his generosity does not affect your family. However, if your finances are such that his offering charity to her would impose a burden on you, then you should tell him that he’s free to direct to the appropriate social services, but you don’t want all of you to have less because of her. As I’ve said before in cases like this, these parents sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.
Q. Unintentional Shoplifting: On a recent shopping trip, I entered the checkout line of a discount clothing store with an armful of items. After handing them to the cashier one by one, I paid for my items and left. I noticed that the total bill was lower than I was expecting, but I figured some of my items must have been on sale. When I got home and looked at my receipt, I realized that the cashier had failed to ring up two of my items, which together cost about $30. I am not sure how to handle this situation. If I return to the store and try to pay for the items, I am afraid the manager will think I intentionally shoplifted them and felt remorseful. Part of me thinks it is the store’s responsibility to hire competent cashiers, and it is their problem if they lose money by undercharging customers. Am I in the wrong by keeping the clothes that I didn’t actually pay for?
A: That would be the ultimate—you go to pay for clothes you were accidentally given for free, and you end up being arrested. However, let’s assume that won’t happen. I think you should go back to the store, see the manager, and explain that you bought a big pile of stuff and when you got it home, you saw that two items were folded in to some others. Because of that the cashier accidentally failed to ring them up and you want to rectify this. Let’s hope the manager’s faith in humanity is so restored that she or he is simply grateful to you and not punitive to the cashier.
Q. Re: Noisy Neighbor: But if, as he says, he is her only neighbor, then an “anonymous” note wouldn’t really be anonymous. I wonder whether a better first step would be, next time he’s awakened, to knock on the wall—which is a way of saying, “Um, we can hear you.” The neighbor may not actually realize that, and may be chagrined. Another possibility—could it be made any less awkward if the chatter’s girlfriend were to talk to Samantha instead?
A: Ah, I must have read right over that the letter writer was the only neighbor. However, it does sound like Samantha is waking up the entire zip code. I still think the note is the best way to go. Sure, she’ll know who wrote it, but it preserves a veneer of anonymity that everyone can mutually indulge.
Q. Ex and Email: Long story short, I met my husband while my fiance went back home to visit his parents. There was a bad breakup and by the time I was engaged to my husband, I cut off contact with my ex. We had been dating for about six years and were very close. Now, five years after we broke up and approximately four years after not speaking, he sent me a very nice e-mail. It is an update of sorts and he wants my phone number and says something like, “I’m sure it will be awkward but nice to catch up.” Part of me wants to, but another part of me is afraid that this may just lead to complications. What do you think? Another part of me wants to respond with a note saying something like, “Here is a quick update, but let’s not keep in touch.” I also feel guilty that I never really said “goodbye,” just stopped returning calls/emails. He kept wanting to reconcile while I ended up marrying the other man.
A: There is something a little off with someone whose fiancee cheated on him while he was visiting his parents, they broke up, she married the other guy, and he keeps wanting to “catch up.” Why? You can answer the email by saying you’re glad to hear he’s well, you are, too, but you think it’s best not to stay in touch.
Q. For The LW With Soon-To-Be-in-Law Problem: My in-laws were the same way, though less direct and more backhanded in their criticisms of me. On the day we returned from our honeymoon, my MIL tried to get my husband involved in a bashing session on me and my parents about how some aspects of the wedding were handled. My husband told her that she was out of line talking about me that way and we packed up the car and left their house two days early. I will never forget how it felt to be “chosen” and how he defended our new family to his mother. She has never lost the tendency to criticize, but she doesn’t focus on me, and she doesn’t try to get my husband as a confederate in her attitude. It matters, and your husband should stick up for you early and often.
A: Letting people know what is and isn’t acceptable, then departing when things aren’t, is very powerful.
Q. Concerned Friend: I have a very good friend I am concerned about. We have been friends for going on five years now. The problem is, I think my friend is hurting herself (cutting/burning). I know her well enough to know that she has struggled with this in the past; in fact, we have talked about it before. I also know she is in therapy now. We are both adults, so I am not sure what the protocol is (if we were young’uns still, I’d have a better clue). (And when I say adults, I means in our 30s.) The thing is, she is being very sneaky about it. I doubt most people would know/notice, but she and I work out together and I have caught glimpses while she is changing. She doesn’t seem to be doing this to get anyone’s attention. Do I just keep an eye on her? Do I say something to her? Do I just let her therapist help? Not quite sure what to do.
A: Gently say something to her. “Yvette, I know you’ve dealt with self injury, and I’m concerned because I’ve thought I’ve gotten some glimpses that you’re hurting yourself. Are you talking to your therapist about this?” Then see what she says. If you feel she’s not coming clean with the therapist (and you know her or his name), I think it’s fair to alert the person who’s supposed to be helping her.
Q. In-Laws and Underwear: My husband and I travel frequently for work. On the odd occasion we are both away, my wonderful in-laws stay in our home to care for our toddler. After their visits, I come home to find the house cleaned and my fridge stocked. My only “dilemma” (if you can even call it that) is that my in-laws also do my laundry. I feel terribly embarrassed that they wash and hang up my underwear, some of which are rather … colorful. I’ve told my in-laws they don’t have to do this as they already do so much by babysitting, but they insist, and I am grateful that housework is another way they express their love for me and my husband. However I feel uncomfortable and embarrassed about their handling my underwear. Am I supposed to pick them out of the dirty laundry pile and hide it? Or should I just pretend it doesn’t matter? I’ve thought of doing the washing just before I leave, but not having a dryer means they’ll be folding my underwear once it’s dry anyway!
A: Thank you for allowing me to end the chat with a problem that involves in-laws who are too helpful and kind. I generally advise that husbands step up and discuss such things with their parents. It will be easier for him to say, “Mom, Dad we appreciate everything you do for us, but you don’t have to bother with the laundry when you’re here. You’re so busy babysitting, and doing everything else you do, that we don’t want you doing the laundry. And frankly, you shouldn’t have to deal with our underwear!” However, if they can’t be stopped—and sometimes in-laws can’t be stopped from being helpful, especially when you’re asking them for help—just accept it’s no big deal that they know that under your jeans is a leopard-print thong.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone. And I hope all your family gatherings this week are warm, wonderful, and free of firearms.